Helen writes: explicit content!

In the second of an occasional series, Writing Skills Advisor Helen Williams gives advice on writing more clearly.

I am often surprised by the difference between what people think they have written compared to what is actually on the page. I was reminded of this recently when helping a friend with a chapter of her postgraduate work; she was confident that she made frequent links back from her literature review to her own research. Trusting her opinion I had a look, but soon found myself writing comments like “How does this inform your approach?”, “I’m not sure how this relates to your topic” and “Can you link back to your own research here?”

Parental_Advisory_labelEither you are explicit in how you set out your ideas or discussion, or you are expecting your reader to pick up the implicit connections. Something about doctoral-level writing in particular seems to breed a fear of being explicit. Certainly on my part I always felt that the more complicated I made my writing and argument, the more ‘intelligent’ it would appear. Setting everything out clearly for a supervisor or examiner felt overly simplistic or even patronising – as if they couldn’t work out the links for themselves.

The reality is that no-one should have to ‘work’ to understand your writing; there is a difference between complex ideas (which a doctoral thesis should engage with) and complex writing.

Try thinking about the following points if this is something you struggle with, and don’t be afraid to be explicit!

  • What are you trying to say? If you’re struggling to explain this, jot down the bare essence of your thoughts elsewhere, or try freewriting as I have covered previously. If you don’t know what you want to say, the reader definitely won’t know.
  • Regularly refer back to your overall topic/research aims/argument where appropriate. Join up the dots for the reader. If something in your discussion links to another chapter, a subsection, previous paragraph or even the overarching aims of your thesis then remind them of this.
  • Try to avoid long, convoluted sentences or jargon. I once wrote the following:
    Any research which therefore attempts to trace connections between medical history and its representations within contemporary culture must make allowances for this interval, and attempt to uncover the point at which such innovations and developments were popular knowledge, rather than merely giving an overview of dates pertaining to the iatrocentric version of medical history.”
    There are many troubling things going on here, not least my use of the word ‘iatrocentric’. I’m not convinced I knew what this meant then, I had to google it again now, and if I didn’t know, I’m not sure how anyone else reading my thesis would.
  • Take a step back from the work. Sometimes the connections are crystal clear for you because you’ve read the text a million times. Put it aside for as long as you can, and try to read it as if you’ve never seen it before. If in doubt, add clarification, connections or useful sentences that recap and provide signposting.

Feel free to share your own examples of hideous sentences below (it’s quite cathartic) or any other writing tips. If you’re looking to improve your writing over the summer, the PGR Summer Writing School will be running from Tuesday 9 – Thursday 11 July and resources from all of the previous years are also available online.

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